Product Deep Dive: Which Tiles are Most Sustainable?

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Which tiles are most sustainable

Brian Reed once said, “Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” When it comes to picking out products for your home, you’re likely trying to create an emotion or feeling in a space. When creating that feeling, each and every product matters. 

Tile is one product many folks are willing to splurge on. A great bathroom reveal will include shiny glass tile or dramatic colors that impact the mood of the space. But, dramatic reveals or social media unboxings aside, how sustainable is tile? And how can you find the right sustainable tile to design your space well

The eco-friendliness of your tile is one marker of how well your space is designed. The good news is, there are lots of tiles that are sustainable and last a lifetime without needing replacement. To make the most of your investment, consider what your tile is made of, how it’s made, and what happens to it at the end of its life cycle. 

Below you’ll find many types of tiles to consider for your space.

What is tile made of?

How tiles are made, and what a tile is made out of, can vary widely. Which type of tile is the right fit for your space depends on the room the tile will belong in and the style of your space. Once you’ve found an answer to the “where” and “what style”, you can determine what the most sustainable tile option is for you.  

The good news: you’ve got a lot of sustainable tile options! Many types of tiles are made of natural materials and most of them will not emit harmful gasses like VOCs. 

Good news - most tiling materials are sustainable.

Ceramic Tile

Most commonly used in: High moisture areas including kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.

How it’s made: Sand, clay and talc are pressed together. They’re glazed and placed in a kiln at a high temperature. 

End of life: Ceramic tiles can be ground up and made into asphalt. If they’re sent to landfill, they do not break down but they are a “clean fill” item according to the EPA

Pros of ceramic tiles: 

  • Made of natural materials 
  • Most clay tile factories are in close proximity to the materials needed to create clay tiles
  • Waterproof with no maintenance
  • Won’t leach caustic liquid
  • Are reusable with delicate demo
  • Minimize heating and cooling needs because of their inherent thermal mass
  • Good for indoor air quality with no VOCs
  • Cleaned and maintained without toxic chemicals
  • Extremely durable, with a lifespan of 50-75 years
  • Can be down-cycled into another product at the end of its life cycle

Cons of ceramic tiles: 

  • If sent to landfill, they never really break down, but they don’t harm the environment with gas emissions either
  • Energy intensive from kiln firing
  • Pigments and dyes vary, and we don’t always know what colorings are non-toxic without asking

Porcelain Tile

Most commonly used in: Kitchens, baths, basements, laundry rooms, and other high-moisture areas

How it’s made: Like ceramic tiles, porcelain tiles are made of clay and fired in a kiln. The main difference is that porcelain tiles don’t have sand mixed in. 

End of life: Porcelain tiles are reusable in other spaces at the end of their life cycle. If taken to landfill, they do not break down. 

Pros of porcelain tiles: 

  • Made of a fine-grained formula that’s extra dense
  • Can endure high traffic areas
  • Have little to no maintenance 
  • Reduces waste by promoting high quality standards 

Cons porcelain tiles: 

  • Like ceramic tiles, it takes a lot of energy from the kiln to make the tiles 
  • Can be hard to find a porcelain tile recycler
  • They don’t break down in landfills 

Wood-Look Tile

Most commonly used in: Moisture and heavy use prone areas, like three-season rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens.

How it’s made: The wood tiles are made of either ceramic or porcelain. The tiles are fired in a kiln, and then the image of wood grain is printed on top of the tile and sealed. 

End of life: Wood tiles are repurposable when you’re finished with them, but they’re nearly impossible to match. 

Pros of wood tiles: 

  • More durable than wood floors 
  • No sealing
  • Waterproof
  • Easy to clean with non-toxic chemicals
  • Avoids cutting down trees

Cons of wood tiles: 

  • They’re a high-density tile, so anything dropped on it will likely shatter
  • Some may not like the wood printed photo on the front of it
  • If one of the tiles breaks, it’s almost impossible to match, so installers recommend ordering extra
  • Professional installs only – if the grout width or color is off, you’ll be able to notice it’s tile

Terracotta Tile

Most commonly used in: High-traffic areas like kitchens, hallways, and living room areas. Also a great choice for bathrooms and moisture prone areas. 

How it’s made: Terracotta tiles are made of clay and heated in a kiln. 

End of life: Refurbishable and usable in other projects or crushed to create asphalt, concrete or brick. 

Pros of wood tiles: 

  • Terracotta tiles can be made of up to 60% post-industrial recycled materials 
  • Can help contribute to LEED certification
  • Durable and can last up to 100 years
  • Made of a natural resource (clay)
  • Energy efficient
  • Low energy production
  • Easy to maintain and clean without toxic chemicals
  • Contributes to comfortable indoor spaces in warmer climates or seasons
  • Suitable for indoor and outdoor spaces

Cons of wood tiles: 

  • Porous and can absorb a lot of dirt easily if you don’t choose a glazed terracotta tile
  • Periodic sealing needs to take place to prevent pore absorption

Vinyl Tile

Most commonly used in: Since they’re moisture resistant, they’re often used in kitchens, bathrooms, and basements.

How it’s made: Colored polyvinyl chloride (PVC) chips are formed into solid sheets using heat and pressure. 

End of life: Plastic materials like PVC aren’t biodegradable, so rather than breaking down it takes up landfill space for years and then becomes microplastics. 

Pros of wood tiles: 

  • Resilient and can handle some wear and tear
  • Softer than some of the tile alternatives 

Cons of wood tiles: 

  • Shorter life span 
  • No refinishing
  • Made of a fossil fuel resource
  • Has a carbon footprint is 2-3x the size of ceramic
  • Can omit VOCs
  • Becomes microplastics 

What is the most sustainable tile?

The most sustainable tile you can buy is tile that’s already been used in another space. By upcycling tile, you’re reducing the amount of virgin materials used, the carbon footprint needed to create something new, and you’re diverting materials from landfills. 

One of our favorite upcycled tiling options is DalTile’s pool tiles. These tiles are made from recycled content, and are safe to be used in any wet areas, from showers to pools to laundry rooms. These shiny, sustainable tiles can create intentional design in any home – and create a splash! 

You could also consider visiting a shop like ReStore and seeing if there are any tiles that have been delicately demoed from someone else’s hope that would work well in your space. 

If small-scale tiles aren’t your thing, or you want to pick out brand new tile, here are some things to consider before moving forward:

  • How are the materials extracted? 
  • How far is the shipping? Tile is really heavy. If you can grab it locally, that’s the most sustainable choice. And, you’ll be supporting your neighbors!
    • If you’re looking for sustainable tiles in Colorado, consider asking your designer about Delta Brick & Climate
  • Is this tile trendy? Or is it something you know will age well based on your tastes and the mood you want to inspire in your home?
  • Does the company provide a recycling option, making it a cradle to cradle product? 
  • Does the company have any noteworthy certifications like Cradle to Cradle, US Green Building Council Member or LEED Certified

When it comes to sustainability, everything falls somewhere on a scale between the least sustainable option and the most sustainable option. Use the questions above to determine where the tileyou want to use falls on the scale. 

Do you know what type of tile to look for?

Sustainable Tile Options for Any Space

Below are some of our favorite sustainable tile vendors to consider when designing any room in your home. 

Which Tile is Best? Our Vote is a Sustainable One

Truly intentional interior design doesn’t only create a better home, it also creates a better planet. With so many amazing sustainable tile options, there’s no reason to invest in a tile that could do more harm than good to the planet. So as a good rule of thumb, avoid vinyl tiles

We know that navigating the world of tile is complicated. Are you actually picking out a tile that’s sustainable? Or is the option you’re considering the result of greenwashing and an unsustainable product?

That’s where we can help. Spark Interiors specializes in creating interiors that invoke the mood you’re looking for while protecting the planet. Schedule a call to get started. 

Want to deep dive on some other materials? Check out our blog posts on wool, carpet, leather, and wood


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